March 2010
Welcoming Newcomers

¡Hola! A warm welcome in Spanish

Hispanics are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, yet Episcopal churches in America, regardless of their geographic location, are not typically equipped to provide worship services and pastoral care to Latino immigrants in their midst. Why do Latinos arrive to our doorsteps? What do they find? Why do they stay? What makes Latinos feel welcome in the Episcopal Church?

When a Latina/o person walks by the church and sees a sign that reads, “Misa en español” (Mass in Spanish) they might be curious and walk inside. When greeted in Spanish and hearing familiar hymnody with beats and rhythms that call them as well as receiving the Word of God spoken through Latino lips, they might return and bring friends and relatives.

Coffee hour? What’s that? An opportunity to meet that neighbor you have seen in the bodega (corner market), at the waiting room of “la clínica” (neighborhood health center), or at the barber shop and discovering more about each other while sipping on coffee and sharing some food. You may wonder what happens if you do not speak Spanish — how can you welcome Latinos into your congregation?

Bilingual, bicultural clergy are key
Your church might already provide social ministries in the community so the newcomer might be familiar with the Episcopal Church, but not as a house of worship. In order to provide worship services and pastoral care to Latinos it is crucial to have a bilingual, bicultural priest or deacon with evangelistic and entrepreneurial skills who is willing to be the Latino face of the Episcopal Church in your community. If there is a bilingual/bicultural clergy person who is part of the social outreach ministries to Latino neighbors, you have already taken the first steps to reach out and welcome those who can form part of the first Spanish-language worship community in your church.

Who is likely to respond to your welcome? A disenfranchised Roman-Catholic, a divorced person or couple, single moms, young parents, children and teens, middle aged abuelas/os, tías and tíos (grandparents, aunts and uncles) — an extended family hungry for God. What does the newcomer look for? The Latino church-seeker wants to pass on their spiritual and moral values which they received back home. Faith is the rock of survival for many immigrants and the Episcopal Church can be the fountain that sustains and nourishes that faith.

I invite you to envision welcoming the Latino newcomer beyond a greeting at the food pantry or watching the after-school children working and playing in the parish hall. With prayer and honest discernment the Spirit will guide you through the never-ending reciprocal and transformative process of recognizing, understanding, and appreciating differences that lead to a multicultural, multilingual congregation. Be prepared for change because sustainable ethnic ministries take root in Episcopal Churches where power and privilege is shared by all.

Changing structures and worship
In addition to the signs that invite people to the church in English or Spanish you can explore having bilingual vestry meetings, hiring bilingual and bicultural administrative staff and clergy, and offering three or four weekly worship services in English, Spanish, and occasionally in both languages. A true welcome means that you will be vulnerable and a bit uncomfortable by changing the ways that you understand what it means to practice your faith and respond through your actions as an Episcopalian.

Do you still want “them” to be part of your Episcopal Church? Open the doors of your hearts beyond the red doors of the church. The gifts of the spirit will be revealed as you become true friends, true brothers and sisters in Christ, and as everyone loses the fear that oftentimes prevents us from taking the risk of becoming one in Christ.

The Rev. Daniel Vélez Rivera is an Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow and a priest at St. Peter’s/San Pedro Episcopal Church in Salem, Massachusetts, where he launched a Hispanic ministry. His call to the ordained ministry began at the age of six or seven and he “finally said YES to God at the age of forty” after working in the fields of mechanical engineering and telecommunications technology. 

[Editor's Note: Check out the document below regarding the Episcopal Church's strategy to reach out to Latinos.]

The Episcopal Church's Strategic Plan for Reaching Latinos/Hispanics

This article is part of the March 2010 Vestry Papers issue on Welcoming Newcomers